Theories of Social Capital: Researchers Behaving Badly

Judith Mehta takes heed of a cautionary tale about the lazy deployment of abstract concepts

April 29, 2010

This is a book that will feed the despair of anyone with the same bete noire, to wit, the lazy deployment of abstract concepts. Ben Fine offers up a case study in "researchers behaving badly", with ramifications for anyone in the social sciences about to avail themselves of the concept of "social capital" as a means of making sense of the world.

Every now and then, a new concept comes along that offers itself up as an analytic wonder drug for those tempted to play fast and loose with their conceptual apparatus. Among my own bugbears I include "globalisation" and "culture". Clearly, Fine's nightmare event is social capital. He's been consumed by a critique of the term for years, resulting in a rich corpus of work focused on development theory and policy, yet with important implications for the much wider domain in which social capital has taken root and proliferated like Japanese knotweed. In Fine's view, Robert Putnam, as social capital's central proselytising figure, has a great deal to answer for.

The jumping-off point for Fine's critique is his view of social capital as one of several terms that has been spawned by the neoliberal tendency to conceive of all resources - and not just strictly commercial resources - as material assets. And so, alongside social capital, we witness the emergence of human capital, environmental capital and, most recently, mental capital, embodying the idea that every social relation or interaction can be treated as an asset to be banked, expended and invested for advantage and maybe even for profit.

Not surprisingly, mainstream - that is, neoclassical - economists are the particular focus of Fine's ire. This is that school of thought within economics that treats the world as composed of self-interested, optimising agents. Crucially, mainstream economists like everything to be measurable in order for it to be malleable to the axiomatic approach to human behaviour that characterises their methodology. Indeed, so great is the fixation on neat functional forms that if you can't measure it, the thought is that it doesn't exist - or at least it really doesn't matter. Fine shows that, against this backdrop, social capital appeared as a godsend: in the hands of mainstream economists, social capital has been able to perform tricks of analysis with those rather awkward elements of the social world that hitherto had eluded them. The upshot has been a proliferation of empirical case studies, a mini-industry intent on supplying evidence of the existence of social capital, here, there and everywhere, and plotting its effects.

Theories of Social Capital offers a cautionary tale to researchers. Social capital may appear to offer a way of theorising about everything - but it has become the prism through which everything is viewed and nothing is seen. Indeed, Fine comes up with a veritable litany of applications of social capital of questionable productivity: the term has variously been tied to whether second homes encourage keen neighbourliness or give rise to shunned newcomers; the colour of skin; the language you speak; accruing gains from festivals; and whether casinos are good or bad for the community, to name but a few.

But the most hard-hitting and clearly enunciated of Fine's reproofs lies in his analysis of the mire that is created as a result of an all-encompassing and insufficiently critical deployment of the concept of social capital. Here, he illuminates the predilection of social capital to distract from an examination of those factors that could have real explanatory value for the phenomenon at issue. These are the grounds, then, on which Fine claims that the term constitutes a degradation of - rather than a contribution to - social science. But since there is no sign of the love affair with social capital waning, I suspect this will not be the author's last word on the matter.

Theories of Social Capital: Researchers Behaving Badly

By Ben Fine

Pluto Press 288pp, £75.00 and £.50

ISBN 9780745329970 and 29963

Published 11 January 2010

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